“The smoothest, baddest brother to hit the big screen! Ice cold never felt so good!”
Who is this funktastic badass at Seattle International Film Festival 2009, talkin’ trash from the Egyptian Theater podium? Is it Shaft? Superfly? Not on your jive turkey life. It’s actor Michael Jai White (“Dark Knight,” “Universal Soldier”) and director Scott Sanders (“Thick as Thieves”), introducing “Black Dynamite,” the latest, greatest blaxploitation hero.
“I came up with the idea in Bulgaria,” explains the buff, martial arts-trained White, decked out in white sportjacket and jeans. “I was listening to James Brown on my Ipod. We shot a teaser trailer for fifty bucks – really old looking and shaky – and it went on Youtube. Our financier, John Steingart, saw the trailer and said, ‘I’m in.’ From there, it took about two and a half weeks to craft a screenplay.”
And what gloriously over-the-top wordplay! Summoning the ghost of Abe Lincoln, steely-eyed White reassures an adversary, “I’m gonna emancipate and proclamate yo’ ass!” Seducing a bodacious, top-heavy hospital nurse, he turns on the chocolate charm. “You’re running a temperature,” the afro-sporting hardbody suggests. “Let me find the thermometer.”
These randy, inspired banter-boulders are hurled throughout “Black Dynamite,” an impeccably mounted send-up of the seventies Blaxploitation genre. Someone is pumping poisoned potions into the ghetto’s supply of Anaconda Malt Liquor, and retired CIA legend Black Dynamite is called back into undercover action. But he’s skeptical of his Caucasian crimefighting cronies, announcing, “’Black Dynamite’s out of the game.”
Can he be persuaded to join the cause? Bet yo’ sweet ass and half a titty he can! It all culminates in a neck-snapping orgy of martial-arts mayhem on Kung Fu Island, as Black Dynamite faces off against diabolical, Chinese arch-nemesis Dr. Wu.
The plot, however, is hardly relevant. “Black Dynamite” scores brownie points for its brilliant, spot-on recreation of grindhouse-era ambiance. Can you dig the amazing naugadyhe costumes (courtesy Oscar-nominated designer Ruth Carter), the gritty, Super 16 film stock, and pulsating funk soundtrack? Even vocal inflections, mouthed by characters named Nipsy, Kotex, and Cream Corn, sound like something from an extinct, bygone era.
Meanwhile, Sanders understands his un-PC, uninhibited, unashamedly sexist source material, and doesn’t pull any punches. “I’ll get off in 15 minutes,” confirms Dynamite’s on-the-job girlfriend before a big date. “You got that shit right,” he concurs.
This ballsy irreverence puts “Black Dynamite” in league with other classic, unrestrained spoofs like “Blazing Saddles,” “Airplane,” and “Tropic Thunder.” Sanders and White deliver the explosive goods. Addressing the packed crowd, White summarizes his onscreen persona’s unique brand of special delivery: “You sign on the dotted line – and he’ll hand you yo’ ass!”
What’s more invigorating than watching recognizable celebrity skins morphing into completely separate onscreen personas? It’s an awesome act of possession. DeNiro pulled it off in “Raging Bull.” Charlize Theron did it in “Monster,” shedding her own pristine dermis to emerge with the scaly, bloated hide of a crass serial killer. In “Like Dandelion Dust,” you get two extraordinary transformations for the price of one.
After her 1995 Oscar win for “Mighty Aphrodite,” Mira Sorvino was snared in a celluloid net of mediocre movie vehicles. She’s the real deal in Jon Gunn’s emotional, compelling tearjerker. As Wendy Porter, Sorvino conveys the hard, defensive veneer of a beaten spouse. We also sense a childhood raised in squalor and poverty. We feel the immaturity of someone who would take back her abuser, following his release from a seven-year prison term, and trust his promises that everything will work out. Ultimately, Sorvino also reveals the wisdom and heart of a mother who knows how to do the right thing. She’s amazing.
Barry Pepper is also stunning as Wendy’s alcoholic husband, Rip Porter. His name couldn’t be more revealing. When provoked, the often-volatile man rips out his fists and rips others a new one. “Like Dandelion Dust” doesn’t take the easy way out, by depicting Porter as a monster. Yes, he’s a troubled, volatile soul – but one with hope for a brighter future. Rip’s dreams of starting fresh are commendable. But is this proud, often self-involved man truly capable of staying sober while keeping his anger in check?
An onscreen adaptation of Karen Kingsbury’s 2008 novel, “Like Dandelion Dust” concerns happy, four year-old towhead Joey Campbell. Adopted by well-heeled parents Jack and Molly and living in Florida, Joey’s life is thrust into turmoil when the Porters enter his life. Wendy and Rip, it turns out, are Joey’s biological parents. They want him back.
“Like Dandelion Dust” is a fascinating study in socioeconomic contrasts. The Porters eke out a struggling existence in blue-collar Ohio, their lives stained by alcoholism and abuse. Joey’s current parents enjoy an on-the-beach homestead and multimillion-dollar bank balance. Rip fights to get what he wants, while Jack makes payoffs. The film plays fair by exposing both couples’ respective strengths and flaws.
Fully aware of his emotionally grueling premise, director Jon Gunn plays things straight. After a legal loophole allows the Porters to reclaim Joey, button-pushing questions are raised. If the Porters really loved their son, why would they yank him away from a comfortable, stable existence? If the Campbells sensed potential harm to Joey, how far would they go to ensure his safety? How could anyone recover from the abrupt uprooting of a cherished son? During a series of initial visits between Joey, Rip, and Wendy, we toggle between relief (“okay, so this might just work out!”) and dread (“this is bad.”).
How do things ultimately pan out? I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the potent denouement. Suffice to say “Like Dandelion Dust” treats its characters with respect, and suggests that people can learn from their mistakes. This isn’t one of those nihilistic revenge thrillers (“Taken”), where threatened parental instincts can only be resolved through uncompromising bloodlust. People are flawed and complicated – but ultimately capable of tremendous, healing insight.
Gunn’s film also boasts career-best acting from Pepper, and especially Sorvino. Transforming from victim into quiet hero, Wendy Porter is an unforgettable character. How did the actress pull it off? Was it those sad, timid eyes and tentative smile? Or some intangible magic that’s best left unexplained? Probably the latter. Check out “Dandelion Dust” for potent, two-hanky drama fueled by Mira Sorvino’s honest, generous gift of a performance.
Alice Cooper once sang, “Dead babies can’t take care of themselves.” Director Paul Solet backs up the shock-rocker’s claim with “Grace,” one of the more resonant and disturbing horror films in recent memory. After her husband and unborn child are killed in a tragic auto wreck, lone survivor Madeline Matheson (Jordan Ladd) comes unglued. Despite its in-utero demise, Madeline vows to carry her baby to full term under the guidance of midwife Patricia Lang (Samantha Ferris). Miraculously, infant Grace emerges alive from the womb.
But is she really alive?
Solet’s film understands the power of visual imagery. It wastes little time with unnecessary dialogue, painting its canvas with equal parts clinical viscera (bloody incisions) and New Age motifs (newscasts on the evils of dairy farms, vegan cookies, holistic birthing). There’s also lots of flies and flypaper. This is not one of those shrill, “zombie baby” movies like “It’s Alive” or “Dead Alive,” preferring the more realistic slow burn of Cronenberg or Polanski (Solet’s startling aesthetic mix of both cold and organic had me thinking “Dead Ringers”).
Do zombie infants creep you out big time? Apparently, you’re not alone. “Grace” played to a half-full Egyptian Theater following the more accessible, sold-out “Back Dynamite,” which is a telling sign that its cringe-inducing premise might be too much for mainstream crowds. I predict that “Grace” will be a love-or-hate phenomenon. Horror aficionados and adventurous art-house flick fans will loudly sing its praises, while those living within the box of generic thrillfests (Japanese horror re-makes, light-alloy, PG-13 teen bait) will bolt for the exits or stay home altogether.
His arms adorned with Ralph Steadman and Dirty Harry tattoos, Solet embodies the same impassioned horror-film enthusiasm that defines other genre-lovers come filmakers like Eli “Hostel” Roth. It’s no surprise to hear that Roth was once Solet’s summer camp counselor, and that “Grace” leading lady Ladd also appeared in Roth’s 2002 “Cabin Fever.”
“I came out of the fucking womb with a copy of Fangoria in my hands,” Solet proclaimed to the crowd during a post-film Q&A. I take his word for it. Like “Bug” or “Audition,” “Grace” will imprint its uniquely grotesque imagery onto your cerebrum, then dare you to shake it off.
MORE TO FOLLOW!!!
Posted on June 8, 2009 in Festivals by KJ Doughton
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- ANAKIN DYNAMITE
- THE GRACE LEE PROJECT
- NEW NAPOLEON THIS FRIDAY
- “MAX & GRACE” ON THE RUN
- GHETTO BLASTER: MICHAEL JAI WHITE AND SCOTT SANDERS ON “BLACK DYNAMITE”
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